By Brandon Lemons
In this past Sunday’s sermon, I mentioned that many people with a church background are deconstructing their faith. “Deconstruction” has become a trendy buzzword in recent years, particularly among young adults with an evangelical Christian background. To help us understand the dynamics of deconstruction, and how to handle and respond to it, we are embarking on a multi-part series of articles.
What is Deconstruction?
Based on conversations I’ve had with people at Friedens Church, I’m guessing many of you who are reading this article are unfamiliar with the word “deconstruction.” I’m quite sure, however, that you are familiar with the dynamics of deconstruction; in fact, you have probably experienced deconstruction in the lives of family members, friends, or even yourself.
The term “deconstruction” was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s to describe a skeptical process of interpreting literature. Like many esoteric philosophies, deconstruction eventually found its way into mainstream culture. In the past few years, “deconstruction” has become one of the trendiest buzzwords in podcasts, blogs, and articles related to religious trends in America and young adults’ experience of Christianity (especially evangelicalism).
So what is deconstruction? As the word implies, it essentially means to take something apart. I appreciate this definition from pastor Mac McCarthy: “Deconstruction is the process of dissecting an idea, belief, practice, tradition, or system to determine its truthfulness, usefulness, and impact.” I encourage you to take a few minutes to digest this definition.
Deconstruction is a process – not a single event, but something that can take place over weeks, months, or years.
The essence of deconstruction is dissecting something. In high school science class, you may have dissected a frog to learn how its internal parts function. Deconstruction is a process of dissecting something in order to examine each of its aspects in greater detail and depth, usually by questioning what was previously assumed about the topic.
Deconstruction can apply to an idea, belief, practice, tradition, or system. Practically anything people do or experience can be deconstructed; it isn’t limited to a person’s Christian beliefs and practices, though that is our focus here.
The goal of deconstruction is to reevaluate the merit of whatever is being examined, to determine with fresh eyes whether it is true and useful, along with the type of impact it has.
Like Jacques Derrida’s original philosophy of deconstructing the meaning of literature, contemporary deconstruction tends to reject what traditional authorities (pastors, parents, etc.) have taught in favor of a different interpretation of the issues.
Why do people deconstruct their faith?
Although deconstruction is a process, there is always a catalyst that launches the process. Until the catalyst arrives, the person generally assumes that their beliefs and practices are good and true – at least good and true enough that they aren’t actively dissecting or questioning them.
Based on my experience and research, two primary catalysts seem most common in launching a process of deconstructing a person’s faith: church hurt and exposure to new ideas.
A sad fact is that people get hurt by Christians and churches. I wish this didn’t happen. But we live in a sinful world, and sin’s devastating influence still stains the way Christians act and churches operate. The result is that people get hurt.
Frequently, in order for pain to lead a person to deconstruct their faith, the pain will probably be bigger than one instance of a Christian saying something rude or of a person feeling ignored once or twice at church. Unfortunately, there are innumerable examples of abuse within churches – sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse – and many times the abuse is perpetrated by church leaders. Unhealthy leadership can wreak havoc, especially when the leadership culture becomes authoritarian, angry, or toxic in some other way. Church splits can lead to disillusionment. Hypocrisy, especially if it is systemic within a church and its leadership, can cause people to question the validity of the church’s teachings.
When someone feels deeply hurt by church – especially when church should be a safe place, a place of healing and support – it can rock their faith and lead them to doubt what was previously unquestioned.
Exposure to new ideas
Have you ever wondered why college is a time when so many people question their faith and turn their back on God? A large part of it is that they are exposed to new ideas in college. As long as someone is unaware of alternative viewpoints, they can live in blissful ignorance (or unquestioning acceptance) of whatever the community around them believes (be it their family, church, town, etc.). But when they are exposed to new ideas that challenge their previously-held beliefs and practices, it opens the door for questioning what they held to be true up to that point – which can then lead to deconstruction. Today’s uber-connected world offers myriad opportunities for people to be exposed to new ideas – including ideas that call into question the basic tenets of Christianity.
Is Deconstruction Good or Bad?
In my experience, deconstruction as it relates to Christianity is usually seen as a negative thing. As you read this article, this is probably your reaction. The main reason for this perspective is because of the fear that deconstruction will lead to a total abandonment of Christianity. This outcome is certainly possible and common. Even if it doesn’t lead to a person fully turning their back on Jesus, deconstruction can still be highly uncomfortable for onlookers because it re-evaluates aspects of Christian faith and practice that are treasured by the people around the person doing the deconstructing. This deconstruction process might lead a person to develop different theological interpretations, political views, parenting philosophies, ministry practices, etc., than they were taught by their family or church. Deconstruction is frequently uncomfortable for everyone involved, including the person doing the deconstructing.
That being said, deconstruction is not an inherently bad thing. For one, it is important to know why we believe what we believe, so I fully support people digging into their beliefs. I support people asking questions and doing research, because I think it is vital that Christians own their faith for themselves rather than simply accepting what is taught to them. In Acts 17:11, the people of Berea were commended for not blindly accepting the apostle Paul’s teaching; it says “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
If you study Jesus’ ministry or the apostle Paul’s teaching, you will find that they frequently engaged in deconstruction. Jesus was frequently confronted with teachings and traditions that came from the Jewish leaders and from the Jewish belief system that had built up over the centuries, and he deconstructed those traditions and teachings. Or if you study the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, Martin Luther and other reformers were radically deconstructing the traditions and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which led to a re-focusing on the Gospel and on the authority of Scripture. In these examples, deconstruction was incredibly good and important!
So is deconstruction good or bad? In my mind, it’s neither. It’s a process that can go in either direction. It can help a person worship God in spirit and truth if they they evaluate traditions and teachings through the lens of Scripture and realize that what they had been taught isn’t actually biblical. If deconstruction reveals unhealthy teaching, legalistic practices, or other traditions and ideas that are actually unbiblical and that pull people away from Jesus, then deconstruction is a healthy process. However, deconstruction can also become like a runaway train, leading a person to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and completely abandon their previous faith in Jesus.
Is your head spinning yet? Mine is. (Although perhaps that’s partly from the effort of trying to boil down big, complex, emotionally laden concepts into a relatively short article). Anyway, we have seen that deconstruction isn’t a new phenomenon, though it has a relatively new and trendy name. It’s not inherently good or bad; it’s a process that can refine a person’s faith in healthy and important ways, or it can also lead to a complete abandonment of Christianity. But it’s a topic that is valuable to understand, because it is shaping the direction of Christianity in America as well as the lives of countless individuals.
Next week, we will dig into how to handle and respond to deconstruction in our life and especially in the lives of those around us.